During the last three or four years of his life, after the publication of The Fall, Albert Camus had a writer’s block which he was desperately trying to overcome when he died in an automobile crash in 1960 at age forty-six. Many events contributed to his inability to write. There had been the famous debate with Jean-Paul Sartre over terror in the USSR, from which, in the verdict of many Parisian intellectuals, he came away the loser. Then the French-Algerian war broke out, and his unwillingness to espouse the cause of Algerian independence diminished still more his reputation among the left. Awarded the Nobel prize just at the moment when the press was demanding that he state a clearcut position on Algeria, he found himself in the position of an old actor suddenly afflicted by stage fright, trying to speak his lines while a hostile audience was making for the exit.
That audience has never stopped deserting him. To be sure, his works have been consecrated in a Pléiade edition, his notebooks have been published, and Camus criticism continues to be a thriving academic industry. But the intelligentsia that came of age during the 1960s had, by and large, little sympathy for moralists, least of all for one who respected his own ambiguities, who shrank from collective action, who detested violence, all the more so for having so much of it inside him, and who increasingly brought his irony to bear upon the innocence that revolutionary ideology encourages in militant minds. The thrashing given to Anatole France by surrealists after World War I and the eclipse Andé Gide suffered with the appearance of Retour de l’URSS in 1936 might be considered as precedents for the fate Camus endured at the hands of a generation radically estranged from his values.
He preached restraint in style and action. They were spoiling for heavy melodrama. He invoked filial piety as a reason for wanting some other solution to the Algerian war than one that would cast him adrift from his motherland. They were disposed to honor writers whose work legitimized their hatred of institutions that held them hostage to the past. Meursault’s passing remark in The Stranger, “We are always a bit at fault,” formed the basis of a creed that proved useless, worse than useless, to people who found the compromises of everyday life intolerable. Revolutionary action is Manichean, as Malraux put it during his communist days.
The Humpty Dumpties of French literary fashion stand a fair chance of getting pieced together in England or America, and Camus may yet become a case in point (much the same can be said of France’s historical ghosts, as we have seen recently with Vichy France and the Jews by Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton. Patrick McCarthy’s biographical study appears only two years after the publication of Herbert Lottman’s,1 which has since been made available to the French in translation.
The biographer who sets out in the hope of rescuing from limbo a misunderstood idol faces a challenge in Camus, for the distance he established with all those qualities that mark his style—its elegance, irony, and aphoristic sheen—contained a fear of being known, or penetrated. “The innocent is he who doesn’t explain himself,” he noted. As strong as his need to assert a public presence was his conviction that self-exposure invited self-destruction (Camus called biographers “biophages”). Like an actor who cannot forgo either audiences or masks, he hid among innumerable personae. There was the Don Juan and the would-be monk, the tough and the aristocrat, the purist and the singer of bawdy songs, the urbane monologuist of The Fall and the reticent killer of The Stranger. He had the capacity for many such contradictions, but the one that may come nearest to encompassing every other touches upon his vocation as an author. “Writing,” he once declared, “is an act of violence against myself.”
This internal civil war, which furnished the material for his first major novel, The Stranger, began very early, with the denial he practiced upon himself as a boy wanting out of the family into which he had been born. He never knew his father, a French-Algerian laborer who died at the battle of the Marne, and left him to be raised by his mother and his mother’s mother in Belcourt, a working-class district of Algiers. His childhood revolved around the enigmatic presence of his mother, with whom he lived in lonesome, mute symbiosis, or in what he himself called a solitude à deux that bound him even more powerfully than possessive love. Catherine Camus was a half-deaf charwoman who couldn’t read or write, almost never spoke, and heard little of what went on around her. “He pities his mother, is that to love her?” wrote Camus in an early story. “She had never caressed him because she would not know how. So he stares at her for long minutes. Feeling a stranger, he becomes conscious of her unhappiness.” Whereas Jean-Paul Sartre, another fatherless boy, organized a memoir about his early youth under the title Words, the central event of Camus’s young life would appear to have been this silence, which evoked for him some “other” world beyond his ken and his petitions.
Had he followed the normal course, Camus would have entered a trade after elementary school or sought employment on the Algiers waterfront. As it happened, the intellectual gifts fortune had dealt him were recognized by a teacher who prevailed upon his reluctant family to let him continue his education at the Algiers lycée. Camus thus made a leap that caused him to spend the rest of his life catching up with himself. From the primitive society of Belcourt, where no one spoke much except his waspish grandmother, who used a bullwhip to enforce discipline, he crossed into European Algiers. Before long he made good on the scholarship he had been given by taking highest honors in language and literature. Such recognition as he couldn’t command at home (and never would according to McCarthy, even after he got the Nobel prize) came to him at school for his facility with words. That facility was hard-won and, in his own mind, provisional. The famous Camus, who often felt at a disadvantage among Parisian intellectuals, might claim for himself the aristocratic virtue of sprezzatura, or natural grace; at other times he would invoke his proletarian childhood and adolescence, his years of swotting beneath an oil lamp in the family kitchen.
To all appearances Camus commuted between his incongruous worlds with impunity. McCarthy tells us that he had about him a certain aloofness that dissuaded schoolmates from giving him a nickname, as they did one another, and none ever received an invitation to visit him at home. But his passion for sport brought him together with them on the soccer field, where there emerged a more approachable boy than the one who was known to prepare class recitations at the seashore, against the roar of the Mediterranean, and who read poetry outside school. Playing goalie suited him very well. It let him participate, yet stand apart. It fulfilled a longing to engage in aggressive action even as it put him in the position of having to repel it. And finally, it did not tax beyond endurance his somewhat frail constitution.
Appearances crumbled, however, when Camus was found at seventeen to be suffering from tuberculosis and sentenced to a year of convalescence. This break with ordinary life proved decisive for his career as a writer in rather the same way that Proust’s internment at Dr. Sollier’s psychiatric clinic set him up for the elaboration of Remembrance of Things Past. To be sure, Proust made asthma a protectress and jailer while Camus felt virile in scoffing at his disease. But the personality that reassembled around this mortal enemy could no longer engage in life except as a condamné à mort. Camus found himself drawn to the cemetery overlooking Algiers, where, as one friend reports it, the sight of ants swarming out of graves provided an occasion for black humor. His favorite café had a guillotine in one corner of it and in another a skeleton equipped with a phallus that stood erect when jerked by a string.
The nineteen-year-old feeding his mind on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Shestov, Malraux, and Gide discovered that some vital part of himself felt safe nowhere but outside the city, in barren, timeless landscapes. Camus was “locked up, he had shut himself away in some dungeon,” observed Jean Grenier, his philosophy teacher, through whose mediation he began a correspondence with Max Jacob. The interest Camus took in Jacob was not so much in the poet who had lived through Montmartre’s heroic age as it was in the Catholic convert who led a life of pious reclusion at St.-Benoît-sur-Loire. Inside his head there ran a line that made it hard for him to avoid equating monkhood and selfhood.
Just how the fear of death or of loss and the argument with sexuality came together is a matter for conjecture. (The only story he knew about his father was that he had once gone to witness the public guillotining of a murderer, had come home, thrown himself on the bed, and vomited.) His notebooks suggest, however, that each reinforced the other in compelling him to assume a guise of indifference toward others and to baffle his own natural affections (“amputate” was his word for it). What Pirandello has his hero say in Henry IV, “Woe to him who doesn’t know how to wear his mask, be he king or Pope,” might have been said by the young Camus, who believed that evil would befall him unless he presented himself before the world as a man devoid of birthmarks. From this will to innocence, which Caligula in his play and Meursault in The Stranger exemplify so chillingly, he created a personal myth that centered on Catherine Camus, of whom he wrote: “A God is present in her.”
Beginning with his first published stories, L’Envers et l’endroit, the illiterate household in Belcourt to which shame had prevented him from introducing friends became the temple of an illegible divinity, and he, Albert Camus, the son nurtured in that divinity’s image. Bound by their common remoteness, they had no ear for the language of emotions, which reached them only as an unintelligible din. The silence his real mother observed had made him miserable. Now he held it to be virtue itself and thus, through identification with an inhuman surrogate, he appeased, all together, his desire to kill, his fantasies of suicide, and his yearning for union.
It is hardly surprising, then, that this man whose self-inventions served to lighten the weight of reality should have become enamored of theater and theater women. To direct his own company was an ambition that tugged at Camus from the time he left home until his death, and for many years the woman whose company he seems to have enjoyed the most was the Spanish-born French actress Maria Caserès. In the late 1930s, when the Algerian Communist Party sought a foothold among intellectuals, Camus, who briefly joined the Party, organized the Théâtre du Travail. This soon lost its political sponsor for staging plays that had no immediate application to the class struggle (notably Ben Jonson’s The Silent Woman), and under a different name went forward with performances of The Brothers Karamazov in Jacques Copeau’s adaptation and The Playboy of the Western World. It disbanded after 1938, but the pleasure it had given Camus, who acted several roles including Ivan karamazov, proved to be far keener than any he later found in literary circles. “[Ivan] was a part that Camus would remember with joy,” writes McCarthy. “In the late ’50s he would play it in restaurants or during meetings at Gallimard and he would watch his friends to make sure they were watching him. It seemed to him the epitome of the theatre because it stressed both the part and the act of acting.” When Malraux became minister of culture, Camus saw in his appointment an opportunity to start a new repertory theater with government backing.
His work as an actor-director provided inspiration not only for plays he subsequently wrote—Caligula and Le Malentendu—but for the method of philosophical deportment elaborated in The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus postulates a heroic life requiring histrionic gifts. “[The actor] illustrates…the very fertile truth that there is no boundary between what a man wants to be and what he is,” he wrote. “How far appearances constitute being is the thing he demonstrates with his constant effort to perfect representation, for such is his art—feigning absolutely.” The actor hero transcends, through the images he projects, a world whose heart is unknowable. Living outside history, or anyway outside his own, he achieves in whichever role his will has him enact an impersonal self that features the coherence, the logic, the self-containment peculiar to art.
Camus hated surprises, and this scheme allows for none. Ordinary time with its endless imponderables recedes before a theatrical now, an absolute present which the hero directs as master of appearances. Nothing can follow his trail or ambush him from the future in this intellectual construct whose hermeticism answered Camus’s dream of impregnability. “That is happiness,…the incomparable isolation of the man who can surround his life with a glance” was how he had Caligula express it. Meanwhile, the notebooks he kept allude time and again to the “dispersion” inflicted upon his self by commerce with the outside world.
Had The Myth of Sisyphus appeared during the Third Republic, it might have been read as the log of a romantic waif becalmed in a sea and praying for a gale to speed him along. For Camus, laboring in this book under Malraux’s influence, the artist, the conqueror, the actor, and Don Juan were models of the exceptional man who, by willing it methodically, achieves a self that transcends the randomness and absurdity of everyday life. (It seems logical enough that Camus’s book should have figured prominently in the syllabus of Renato Curcio, former leader of the Italian Red Brigades; McCarthy finds this, I’m not sure why, “a historical paradox.”) But by late 1942, the German occupation had transformed France into a prison-house altogether suitable for the clandestine brotherhood of heroes The Myth of Sisyphus glorifies. What André Sinyavsky once said about his literary vocation—that he owed it to the KGB—might describe Camus’s debt to the Nazis, who, in sequestering Europe under a reign of terror, gave The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus a far greater vogue than they would otherwise have enjoyed. Moreover, the fact that these manuscripts were brought into Paris while their author lay hidden near St.Étienne did him no harm.2 Bursting upon the Paris literary scene in absentia, Camus came to acquire, before he quite knew it, the halo of a quasi-prophetic figure, of an immaterial being, or, indeed, of a “saint” arriving providentially for his generation.
Certainly during the Occupation he experienced severe hardships, not the least of which was homesickness. Yet it is equally certain he thrived on a feeling that the past had been set between brackets. Like the heroes evoked in The Myth of Sisyphus, he stood behind his own work as an éminence grise at once famous and occult. The Resistance took him one step further toward heroic self-fulfillment. Going underground, which he did sometime after October 1943 to write for the newspaper Combat, excited in him visions of finally shaking off the man with weak lungs and bad thoughts who had followed him all the way from Belcourt. “I shall forever be a stranger to myself,” he declared in The Myth of Sisyphus, anticipating his life of forged papers and aliases.
That Camus’s animus against the tyrant and invader spilled over from a private war became apparent after the liberation, in the debate he held with François Mauriac on the subject of punishment for French collaborators. Mauriac, whose service as a Resistance fighter had been far more extensive than Camus’s, argued that the tribunals set up to try them should exercise leniency. Camus would have none of it and earned, with his fire-and-brimstone editorials, the reputation of being a twentieth-century Saint-Just. “Who would dare speak here of pardon?” he asked in one such editorial, and in another he warned that “a country that bungles its purgation is getting ready to bungle its renovation.” He was, he declared, “willing to destroy a living part of the country’s body in order to save its soul.” Had readers of Combat been privy to Camus’s notebooks, it might have struck some that the justice demanded by this merciless advocate resembled the exorcisms he had vainly urged upon himself all his life. “Perhaps man was given sexual life to divert him from his true road. It’s his opium…. Without it, things come back to life,” he wrote years earlier, after his first marriage had failed. The statement one encounters there that “I chose creation to escape crime” puts one in mind of the exile who felt at home in France when France offered him a role as inquisitor.
By 1946 his view changed. He took Mauriac’s side, denouncing capital punishment and the entire campaign of vengeance. Why he did so is a question that cannot be answered simply. His wife, whom he had not seen since 1941, rejoined him and he soon became a father. Despite the privileges it brought, fame also impelled him to match himself against a public image of his own making that had become yet another prison from which to escape. Above all, the blood shed by doctrinaire executioners who invoked, as he himself recently had, a “new era,” filled him with revulsion. No doubt the solipsistic shell he inhabited began cracking open earlier along, with The Plague. But what happened after 1946 suggests that the “virtuous” terror of post-Liberation France had led him to reexamine in some fundamental way the nature of his mind, the purpose of his art, and the politics of our time. From this reexamination came first The Rebel, then The Fall.
Having always considered innocence a supreme good and made every intellectual sacrifice on its behalf, Camus now took issue with the revolutionary ideology in which that innocence had been schooled. Once he recognized for what it was his own flight from self into the certainties of inquisition, he then saw Saint-Just, Marx, and Lenin, among others, parade before him as crusaders of a new faith that required the individual to seek salvation beyond individuality. “All ideology constitutes itself against psychology,” he declared. In making man culpable while “ex-culpating” history, totalitarian doctrine, as he understood it, sanctifies the impulse to kill one’s parents, to abolish the past along with all that infringes upon one’s will, to inhabit a year I of the mind. Whereas rebellion against parental authority creates individuals, revolution preserves a godhead justifying human sacrifice. “Kill God to build a church” is the wisdom underlying Camus’s analysis of apocalyptic or terrorist thought in The Rebel. Between 1792 and 1918, each generation brought forth ideologues who, for all their differences, dreamed the same dream of a new dispensation that would license the faithful to commit virtuous and impersonal murder.
When his book was published, Camus wrote an open letter in which he said that “if The Rebel judges anyone, it is primarily the author; those for whom the problems stirred up in this book are not merely rhetorical will have understood how I was analyzing a contradiction that had been mine first and foremost.” This self-criticism isolated him not only from the author of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus but also from the group that hovered around Jean-Paul Sartre, who was perfectly aware that in The Rebel Camus had indicted him for his rather more than cordial entente with Stalinism. As each dealt the other blows in Les Temps Modernes, their controversy polarized the Paris intellectual community and ended a friendship that had been built on misperceptions. Had Camus thought it possible to walk away as the popular choice after covering the icons of Marx and Lenin with psychological graffiti, he would have given the piety against which he had campaigned less than its due. Nor was it possible for him to cast shadows on Sartre’s rationalistic mind, even with the nice observation he made somewhat later that “if one doesn’t have character, then one must offer oneself a method.” Twenty-three years later, in 1975, Sartre declared: “I have never felt guilty, and I am not.”
Camus spent much of the 1950s embroiled in trials and trying himself. The French-Algerian war, during which he strove to effect a reconciliation between the French government and the FLN, mobilized in him the fear of loss that was so much a part of his personality. Algeria was mother, kin, childhood—everything he sought to rescue for himself by supporting a policy of “assimilation,” that brought him up against intellectuals—Sartre prominent among them—who saw his allegiance to family as a disservice to history and his condemnation of guerrilla violence as colonial sanctimoniousness. “I have always condemned the use of terror,” Camus declared at a press conference in Stockholm after receiving the Nobel prize for literature. “I must also condemn terror which is practiced blindly on the Algiers streets and which may any day strike down my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.” This statement was received in Paris with loud derision. It is by no means certain that the mockers would have been more indulgent if they had known how strenuously Camus, sympathetic as he was to Arab grievances, worked behind the scenes to secure clemency for militant nationalists like Ben Saddok and Amar Ouzegane.
In 1956 Camus published The Fall, that brilliant monologue which turned out to be a final settling of accounts with himself and, no doubt, with Sartre (who held court at the Pont Royal bar much the way Clamence does at the Mexico City). Ensconced like Satan in an Amsterdam dive, Clamence describes to a mute interlocutor the circumstances that robbed him, in his previous life as a Parisian lawyer, of the sense of omnipotence he had mistaken for virtue. This monologue is a self-mocking commentary upon the monologuist who fell from grace when another, critical voice entered his head and transformed the throne room where he heard only himself into a parliament where conflict reigns. Since Clamence talks about Clamence from beyond the grave, The Fall contains any number of passages that Camus might have chosen for his epitaph, but perhaps this one would best serve the undeceived actor:
After lengthy reflection on myself, I brought to light the beast’s profound duplicity. I then understood, by delving into my memory, that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress. I used peace as a means of waging war and obtained, with shows of unselfishness, everything I coveted.
The very considerable pain and loneliness it cost him during the last years of his life may indicate that being remembered for recovering his memory is finally what he wished to achieve most.
It would be agreeable to report that McCarthy, after shopping through Herbert Lottman’s warehouse of a biography (to which he gives brief acknowledgement), had come away with material for the interpretation of Camus one missed in Lottman’s book. Instead, he opens a depleted, more drab warehouse of his own. Non sequiturs abound, and the general disarray leaves the impression that he never began to grasp Camus from within.
What Camus said about character and method might apply here. Since Camus’s character escapes the author, he relies on certain key words or notions such as “barbarian,” “oneness,” “universal ballet,” “amputation,” “Algerian”—above all “Algerian”—to substitute for an inner portrait that never comes into focus. The words recur like winks of complicity to the reader precisely when the reader is likely to feel most bewildered by McCarthy’s elliptical narrative, and only bewilder him more. “The lesson that experience is useless was a thoroughly Algerian one. Camus had learned it through his brush with death and he imparted it to the others,” he writes, as if to say that Camus’s profound depression endowed him with national wisdom. Where McCarthy gets lost, vocabulary gets strung together in jargon: “The delight he took in the Algerian countryside was so intense that, deny it as he might, he felt it must possess some greater significance. Without the universal ballet courage and lucidity were impossible. So Camus revelled in man’s religious sense even as he repeated that it must be amputated.”
Besides such cant words there are, throughout McCarthy’s book, one-liners that dispose of much of Camus’s experience with startling crudity. Take marriage. One can only speculate on why Camus chose for his first wife a beautiful, vampish, socially well-connected French-Algerian who was, as he knew in advance, hooked on drugs. But it will not do to rest upon the conclusion that “he was marrying a woman who was the opposite of his mother,” especially when McCarthy himself notes, several pages before, that in her depressive phases Simone Hié was “prone to long silences.” Did his wife, like his mother, not exercise upon him the fascination of a creature living in thraldom? Did their inaccessibility not protect him from what he found abhorrent in himself even as it gave him room to entertain rescue fantasies he later unmasked in The Fall? How far the two women were from being “opposite” emerges from an anecdote Lottman relates:
Later the couple told a friend how they had indulged in the humorous gesture of spending the wedding night apart, she at her mother’s, he at his. Like their use of vous to each other, he supposed that this flaunting of conventions was meant to suggest that for free spirits marriage did not imply overfamiliarity. Indeed, they would always use the vous form to each other, and she may not even have called him Albert, a name he disliked. He was “Camus” to his friends, and they all continued to use the formal vous to him.
Lottmann passes up the opportunity to note that there may have been something beyond a “flaunting of conventions” in the fact (or if it was a fantasy, what a revealing one!) that Camus spent his wedding night alone under his mother’s roof. McCarthy not only omits the anecdote altogether but states that “Camus never moved back to his mother’s home after his illness [at 18].”
It is odd that such excellent guides as John Cruikshank’s Camus and the Literature of Revolt3 and Anthony Rizzuto’s Camus’ Imperial Vision4 did not help to steer McCarthy toward a more coherent reconnaissance of his subject’s work. His own literary analysis seems like notes hastily jotted down. But the muddle he makes would be excusable if not for the cheap shots he takes; throughout his book matters that require deliberate, fair examination are dealt with by summary judgments. His account of Camus’s bitter controversy with Sartre in 1952 over the Temps Modernes’s attack on The Rebel and Sartre’s support of the Communist Party shows how his efforts to sound briskly even-handed lead him into incoherence. Sartre, he writes, became on this occasion a “virulent pamphleteer” who was wrong to defend the PC, even when it was “most blindly Stalinist,” as the party of the working class. Still, having shown Sartre at his worst, he can write, “The present-day observer may feel that the Sartre-Camus battle ended in a draw.” This “observer” seems to be McCarthy. “[The Rebel], over which Camus agonized as he had never before agonized, is not merely his worst book but one that did him great harm,” he concludes, before launching upon a three-page brief against the book, which never presents an idea of Camus’s without squashing it instantly and leaves one none the wiser about what Camus meant by rebellion.
Elsewhere he writes: “One cannot help feeling that Camus’ popularity rocketed because the values he advanced were so vague and so traditional that anyone could subscribe to them because, having conjured up the spectre of despair, he quickly banished it with the fragile wand of revolt.” Vagueness seems more a property of Mr. McCarthy’s mind than of Camus’s. In his eagerness to demonstrate that he flies the right political colors, McCarthy can dismiss Camus out of hand. After all, there were numerous “anyones” among Camus’s intellectual confrères who found his values obnoxious, and not because the latter were vague. But McCarthy’s dictionary of idées reçues must have it that tradition (just one tradition) is bad, revolution good, revolt a fragile wand.
If McCarthy can’t hang Camus for what he said, he doesn’t hesitate to indict him for what he didn’t say. In 1945, Camus, after a long trip through Algeria, wrote eight articles inspired partly by bloody riots at Sétif and Guelma, which brought heavy reprisals. These articles deliberately take the long view, they dwell on the misery to which French policy had reduced Moslems as a way of explaining why violence would continue unabated unless democratic reforms were implemented quickly. McCarthy hardly discusses this work except to say that “in the articles which he wrote for Combat on his return he condemned the repression at Sétif but he did not discuss the discrepancy between the violence of the insurgents and the violence employed against them.”
Or again, in connection with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, McCarthy observes: “Yet Camus and Sartre were intellectually further apart than they had ever been. Naturally Camus disliked Le Deuxième Sexe which ‘ridiculed French males.”‘ It was not Camus but De Beauvoir herself, a dubious source, who insisted in La Force des choses that Camus disliked the book for that reason. And yet the sentence is so rigged as to make him her ventriloquist’s dummy.
Camus includes a good chapter on society and politics in Algeria during the 1930s. Otherwise, it is not equal to its subject.
November 18, 1982